October 25, 2011

Church-Planting and Pulpit-Priority

by Eric Davis


If you have tuned in to church-planting chatter lately, you may have heard something along these lines: “We’re more about community, you’re about a Sunday event.” “We’re more about being missional, you’re more about a pulpit.” It’s an emphasis on community and/or mission, over preaching.

Similarly, I recently heard this advice: “If you are on your way to the Sunday gathering and see your neighbor painting his fence, forget the gathering, turn around, go home and get your paintbrush.”

Now, serving our neighbors for the gospel is faithful, no doubt. Painting your neighbors fence could be in-roads to sharing the only message that saves. Genuine biblical community is a non-negotiable for the local church.

Dangerous Dichotomies

Even so, among church-planting discussion, there seems to be a false distinction between “community” and “missional,” and the ministry of the pulpit. There is a temptation to consider the pulpit a less fashionable, or even an optional, accoutrement to real, church-planting ministry.

 

Community vs. Exposition

The existence of  monologue does not automatically mean biblical community is not happening. On the contrary, the expository proclamation of the word is the most sacred way in which the local-church does community.

Think about it. At your average Sunday gathering for your average congregation of 100: An accomplished M.D. in her 40’s is seated next to three 20-something singles, alongside a 60-something small-business owner, who is behind a young married couple. Together, they spend several minutes chit-chatting, then another 30 singing loudly to and with one-another, moved by the glory of God in song, followed by hearing of sound exposition, where together, they experience the convicting and comforting ministry of the Spirit. They are all in attendance to comprehend and embrace the will of God. You would hard pressed to assemble a diverse demographic for such a meaningful purpose outside of the local-church if you tried.

However, while the diverse demographic may be a striking feature of the local church, diversity is not the backbone of what defines biblical community. The sacredness is not so much in the people, but in the purpose for which they congregate. Nothing is more sacred than sound exposition of the God-breathed word before the redeemed, where every morsel of the mind of God is unpacked to the church. They gather together because the pulpit ministry is not lesser community, or in opposition to it, rather, it is the pinnacle of biblical community.

Equipping vs. Exposition

Perhaps you have heard this one as well: “Monologue is an ineffective way to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. It doesn’t work. We should all be allowed to use our gifts.” It’s a shift in the name of “balance” that, if anything, is unbalanced and biblically unfounded.

Again, this creates an unbiblical dichotomy between equipping and the pulpit. The argument is narrow; it presupposes the time of preaching is the only time to use one’s gifts. But that is emphatically not the case.

Amen, we should all use our gifts. That is precisely one intention of the great community event centered around the expository pulpit. Who equips the saints for the work of the ministry? Pastors and teachers (Eph 4:11-12). What equips the saints to be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:17)? Exposition of the God-breathed word. The pulpit then, is not a hindrance to equipping the saint to use their spiritual gifts, but the prerequisite.

Accurate exposition pumps life into the church so that the word richly dwells within them, launching the saints to use their gifts and do the work of the ministry with all wisdom. Strip the church of expository preaching, and you cripple God’s people from using their Spirit-gifts. The Spirit-inspired word is what gives power to right use of spiritual gifts.

Missional vs. Expositional

Another argument goes like this: “But if I over-emphasize the preaching, the flock won’t do anything. My church-plant will just become spiritually fat and lazy.” This, too, is an unbiblical dichotomy which is certain to plant unhealthy churches. A rich pulpit ministry is not hindering from mission, it equips for it. Exposition is not in conflict with evangelism, it is evangelism.

When the Bible speaks, God speaks. It is the word through the power of the Spirit that gives life. Painting fences is helpful, but it will not give life. Ask your neighbor to join you, encouraging him that you will help him paint that afternoon. If he declines, so be it. But communicate something supernatural, not by forsaking the gathering, but prioritizing it.

Furthermore, by attending the gathering, you will land back in your neighborhood better equipped for evangelism. We can trust that God will pump his life-giving word into us such that we are more adequately equipped to be missional the other 6 ½ days that week.

Disdaining our Dads

Furthermore, there seems to be a hint of contemporary snobbery lingering among fledgling-planter sub-culture (of which I have been guilty). It goes something like this: “Those older men of the faith have not done community as clever as us, nor have they been as faithfully missional.”

Again, this argument shipwrecks on two grounds. First, it disdains the event surrounding rich exposition as “lesser community.” Second, the claim is largely imaginative. The reason many of us YRR’s squawk at some previous generations for missional failure is because they brag about it more. They ride the missional hobby horse and fly the banner, while other seasoned saints just faithfully reach out without blowing a trumpet. Taking the time to look into some of these ministries before us will shed some clear light that, indeed, they’ve been doing “the work of an evangelist,” quietly and faithfully for years. Sure, some before us may have dropped the baton in ways in doing biblical community and evangelism, but chronological pretentiousness is nothing new under the sun.

The great need for the fledgling-planter is not to one-up those other pastors who are not as missional as you, and just don’t get community. The great need is not to pace your undersized office floor and figure out what those unfortunate churches have failed to do. Neither is the call to invent the most innovative way to do community groups and mission. Rather, the need is for us to do community and evangelism, by giving ourselves fully to expository preaching, which will subsequently equip the saints so that they can effectively do community and evangelism as well. Some of us fledgling-planters could benefit ourselves, and those to whom we minister, by giving less time to finding the latest missional methods which seem to be filling pews, and more to verse-by-verse exposition, which will save and sanctify.

We church-planters have got to think more carefully about what we are doing in this generation. In every plant, we have a huge opportunity to plant churches in the right direction.

Let’s keep in mind that content causes community; exposition evokes evangelism, and not the opposite. God’s people need to feast. The lost need to know God from all angles, in all his glory, through exposition, and see his regenerate people committed to transforming community. “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (John 6:63). Give yourself to exposition and watch Spirit-filled community and evangelism take off.

De-emphasizing the pulpit while simultaneously calling people to do community and evangelism, is like demanding more from your muscles, yet pumping less blood. You can’t short supply that which is essential to life. Doing so will only backfire on you. Here are five ways things can backfire if you de-emphasize hearty exposition in your church-plant:


First
, your push for community will backfire. Sure, you may succeed in corralling warm bodies during the week, for a meal and discussion, and so affirm your church-plant for “doing community.” On the surface you may even appear to have a thriving community group ministry, where unbelievers are constantly invited, and even feel welcome. But true biblical community will dilute into getting together to feel alright. The flock will quickly forget why they are gathering. The spiritual lifeblood necessary to sustain the saints will be in short supply and so they will consequently do shallow and man-centered community.

Second, your push to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry will backfire. The flock will quickly become mal-nourished. Paul’s stated reason for which saints do the work of the ministry is that they are equipped. Faithful exposition unleashes the word, which is the power to accomplish equipping. Ephesians 4:12 is favorite verse of church-planters, and rightfully so. But we need to keep reading. The movement of equipping is towards “unity of the faith” (v. 13), “knowledge of the Son of God” (v. 13), maturity (vv. 13, 14), discernment amidst contemporary fads (v. 14), and “truth in love” (v. 15). Congregating human beings will not accomplish this. Congregating for exposition will.

Third, your push to make disciple-making disciples will backfire. Every fledgling-planter fantasizes about a congregation who joyfully help him in making disciples who make disciples. And for good reason. None of us can possibly “admonish and teach every man” on our own to present them complete in Christ. We need equipped disciple-makers alongside of us. How will you grow up such people? “Teaching them to observe all I have commanded you” (Matt 28:18). Since exposition consecutively unpacks and persuades the whole counsel of God, it’s central to hatch competent disciple-makers.

Fourth, your push to be missional will backfire. Yes, in the OT, it was a time of “come and see,” but now, we are to “go and tell.” Amen and amen. By planting a church, you are going and telling. And the pulpit is precisely the place where the new covenant people are equipped and launched for refreshment to “go and tell.” When the exposition of the word is de-emphasized, the flock will not only have little content, but little direction for evangelism. Little pulpit, little evangelism. To call the flock to paint a neighbor’s fence on Sunday morning over gathering for worship will add some color to the neighborhood, but will also communicate wrong priorities to the lost.

Fifth, and perhaps the worst consequence of de-emphasizing exposition in church-planting is one prominent in our day: a personality-driven ministry. In other words, you will build a ministry centered more around the pastor than the Savior. What is the correlation of the de-emphasis of exposition and a personality-driven ministry? Exposition assumes the message is extracted from careful exegesis, interpreting the passage in its grammatical-historical context, then applied. The pastor actually gets out of the way by submitting to every jot and tittle through exposition. Reading the passage then discussing around the topic in the passage is not necessarily expositing the passage, but that is an article for another time. The more the preacher sticks to exposition, the more he ensures that the congregation is fed God’s thoughts and not his. If you do the opposite, you may draw crowds, but be certain that people will come more for you and your style. They will like the way you talk; their spiritual palate will be distinguished more for you and less for robust christocentric exegesis. They will be hooked by your new ideas; your mantras and the unique “way” you do things “around here.” Exposition protects us proud fledgling-planters from the intoxication of fed-egos, while conditioning regenerate palates for rightly-interpreted Scripture to launch the saints for faithful community and evangelism.

The fledgling-planter will best ensure his faithfulness to God, grow out of his untamed youthful fervor, and care for the flock by becoming a skilled expositor. In the zeal of youth, we can be wise in our own eyes; blinded by our pride. As we go out to younger congregations, we can easily be intoxicated by the pride that blossoms from being sought after for counsel and advice. Again, these are good things as a means to care for the flock, but let’s beware.

As young pastors, we will serve Christ best by not saying much except to accurately and passionately exposit the mind of God from Scripture. Take it from Solomon: “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Prov 10:19). There is so much chatter about what works in church-planting these days. While the discussion is certainly healthy in some ways, it would be best to keep things more simple rather than less. The bulk of our many words ought to be exposition.

Let us protect ourselves, God’s people, and the glory of Christ from our pride by giving much time to unleashing the mind and will of God verse by verse. We fledgling-planters, especially in our early years, will do well to ensure that there is a verse, rightly interpreted, attached to everything we are doing in their ministry. Otherwise, we risk secret self-exalting pragmatism, and worse of all, personality-centered ministry.

The greatest need for the fledgling-planter has not changed since the Apostle Paul exhorted his young disciple 2000 years ago: “preach the word, in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). Many temptations will come down the pike for the fledgling-planters. In an effort to “get things moving,” we can be tempted to be “all about” mission or community. But reaching the lost and getting the flock motivated to gather outside of Sunday does not happen by telling them to do it, nor de-emphasizing the pulpit. Rather, the one-anothers and evangelism are the fruit of faithful pulpit ministry.

Expository preaching is what works in church-planting because it unleashes the whole counsel of God. It is how we get the word richly dwelling within us such that we are “filled with the Spirit” to do the work of the ministry. Exposition ensures that God, not men, are speaking. With every verse unleashed, the Spirit casts more light on Christ himself. After all, that is what the flock needs; for comfort in struggle; motivation to press on; meaningful community, and God-glorifying evangelism.

So, get your core team gathered and equipped to plant a church with a sound pulpit ministry. Do community groups in light of the pulpit. Labor with your core team to get a pulpit ministry going and community will happen in your church. And remember, the expository pulpit event is the pre-eminent “doing of community” in your church. God’s people are not to congregate for congregating. We congregate for edification and worship. Exposition unleashes the power for that, which in turn fuels doxological evangelism and meaningful community.

I once heard a wise, seasoned pastor say, “If you want to be relevant, become an expositor.” Church-planter, be most relevant to your context by giving yourself to exposition. If you don’t know how, there are plenty of good resources out there. Download as many S. Lewis Johnson and Lloyd-Jones sermons as possible. Church-plant core team, give yourselves to freeing up that guy for exposition. If you’re looking for something that works in church-planting, try expository preaching. It’s more important than you think.

Eric Davis

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Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
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  • Len Hjalmarson

    Good, let’s also not forget that there are five gifts named in Eph 4, and all are for “the equipping of the saints” so the saints can serve.

    • Eric Davis

      Thanks, Len. I would take the view that there are 2 or 3 of those original 5 remaining in Eph 4:11, depending on how you see “pastors and teachers” (“pastor-teacher” or as 2 separate). Nate Busenitz wrote a helpful piece pertaining to that issue here: http://thecripplegate.com/are-there-still-apostles-today/

  • Creighton Ring

    Thank you Eric. Amen and amen! The main thing must remain the main thing, namely the centrality and foundational directives of the Word in all things that are ascribed to the Church. I’m off to learn about DMLJ and his practice of what you have reminded us to do. Again…thank you!

  • Eric – great post. Appreciate your second point in the “backfire” section. May God bless his church and may those truths of equipping be the focus of our ministries!

    What other sites have you found with a biblical approach to church planting?

  • Pastorjj

    Great article Eric, I could not agree more. Thank you.

  • paulchoi

    Amen! I believe in the Word of God and in the power of prayer!

  • Anonymous

    Eric, amazing article. What is most amazing to me is your passion for biblical exposition in a region (Jackson Hole) that prides itself on “community” perhaps more than any other community in the country. Jackson culture is actually “marketed” by several very well known outdoor companies, and people migrate there from all over the world for this incomparable mountain culture. The fact that you are not taking the modern approach, and doing community by simply riding ski lifts, charging singletrack, and fly fishing the Snake is truly remarkable. I deeply respect your biblicity in that you are committed to pulpit priority in Jackson just as much as you would be in Houston or LA or Seattle. God bless you!

  • Matt

    As someone who sits under your leadership and teaching, this core belief is clearly communicated every week in the Sunday gathering, the community groups, and everything else we do. Thank you.

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  • You nailed it man. I am in the very beginning stages of a church plant and find myself constantly reading the latest-and-greatest books on the subject. A lot of them are straight up garbage. If it wasn’t for some of the dudes in A29 helping me out and emphasizing what is ultimately the 9 marks I may be one of those people you mentioned.

    I’m definitely coming back to read more. “De-emphasizing the pulpit while simultaneously calling people to do community and evangelism, is like demanding more from your muscles, yet pumping less blood.” – like

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  • I love the emphasis in your article on the Word, and that community is rooted in the truth of God’s Word. Your main point regarding dichotomies was powerful and needs to be heard.

    My concern is when one equates “teaching the Word” with “expository preaching.” Different cultures may “do church” differently, may learn differently, and may live in community in ways far different than we experience here in North America. Therefore, I am a huge fan of teaching the Word and encouraging people to live out their faith. I am questioning the idea in your article that expository preaching from a pulpit is the only or the best way to teach God’s Word.

    • Anonymous

      Are you suggesting like the adage “preach preach preach….use words if you have to?” Sort of a teach by the way I live my life type approach?

      • No, absolutely not. Since Jesus used words, I think that’s a good example for all of us. My point was that teaching takes different forms in different cultures. Expository preaching can be a linear process when some cultures don’t process information that way. Speaking, teaching, communicating God’s Word–these are all important. But we need to do this in a culturally appropriate way, and expository preaching, in my opinion, isn’t always the best way for all cultures.

        • Anonymous

          I think you’re on a very slippery slope here Kevin – more slippery than than the world famous snowy slopes that surround Eric’s hometown. I mean, what would you suggest is the “culturally appropriate” way to do ministry in Jackson, because if there’s a place to make an exception based on the culture, it’s got to be a town full of uneducated ski bums, adrenaline junkies, and nomadic twenty somethings. Many people there can’t go one hour without an adrenaline rush, better yet endure an hour of boring biblical exposition, right?

          The exposition of God’s Word is culturally appropriate whether it’s Jackson, Seattle, LA, or South Africa. I recommend you go back and read Eric’s five cautions against demphasizing hearty exposition in your church plant.

        • Gabriel Powell

          I suppose the critical question is, “What do you mean by expository preaching?” Because it’s possible your definition is too narrow.

          • That’s likely the issue, Gabriel. Though I’m a personal fan of expository preaching, I don’t see that mandated in the Bible. I do see that teaching of the Word of God IS mandated. When I hear “expository preaching”, I think of verse by verse lectures. So that’s likely my narrow definition. And, again, I’m a fan!
            But isn’t there a place for (at least occasional) topics/topical preaching to deal with specific issues? Also, Jesus used parables to communicate to the crowd (including disciples). Maybe my definition is too narrow, but that doesn’t fit what I think of when I hear “expository preaching.”

          • Eric Davis

            Kevin

            Good to hear from you. Thanks for the comment. Here’s how I would reply:

            The crux of your argument is: What is the definition of expository preaching? And is that definition culturally transcendent or not? In the article I gave a brief definition: “Exposition assumes the message is extracted from careful exegesis, interpreting the passage in its grammatical-historical context, then applied.” Is that a method which is only appropriate for the western mind? Not at all, because it is subject to the Spirit’s inspiration of the text, seeking to bring out the authorial intent. The power is in the meaning of the text through the illuminating work of the Spirit.

            Furthermore, you see biblical writers expositing Scripture in very non-western cultures, like Nehemiah 8, for example. Paul did this in Galatia when he planted the churches there (Acts 13-14) and he exhorted Timothy to do the same in Ephesus (1 Tim 4, 2 Tim 2:15, 4:2).

            I think too much weight is often put on the western/non-western and linear/non-linear idea, as well. The problem w/ humanity isn’t so much that our minds are non-linear, linear, or hyperbolic, but that they are depraved. And the greatest remedy to the fallen mind is the God-breathed word; “accurately” handled (2 Tim 2:15), then applied to our audience.

            This does not need to be done w/ a glass, wood, or any pulpit. And where cultural consideration comes in, is application. We need to know our audience so as to give helpful application.

            Hope that makes sense. Thanks Kevin.

  • Jason Worrell

    The flock needs to hear the word of God from a preacher who has studied the Bible intensely in seminary and has a much more profound understanding of the scripture due to his education and training. Expository preaching is absolutely critical because the flock simply does not have the capacity to dissect the Word and properly understand it’s meaning and intent the way a leaned preacher does. We can all read the Bible but that does not mean we can all properly understand the Bible. In fact, many people do harm to themselves by reading scripture and then interpreting it in a way that justifies their lifestyle choices even if those choices are simply bad or wrong. Also, many people read the Bible and simply do not know what it is saying (I know this happens to me quite often).

    If there is one book in the entire history of humanity that needs to be studied, learned and properly applied to daily life it is the Bible. I dare say Expository preaching by a pastor filled with the Holy Spirit is the singular way the majority of the flock in any given church recieves a proper Biblical education. This of course puts a tremendous burden on the pastor/preacher to deliver an accurate and indepth biblically principled sermon each and every week, but the fruits of the pastor/preacher’s labors are invaluable. If done right people are saved, God is glorified and the flock is strengthened and prepared to spread the Gospel through word, action and deed.

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